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Japan freezes fast breeder plans

Monju, Japan’s prototype fast breeder reactor, has had its research budget slashed. This might not come as a big surprise, given the anti-nuke sentiment in Japan and the tattered state of its nuclear energy policy. Still, with this latest blow, the woeful state of the ill-fated reactor is all the more striking. It could be maintained — with the help of a one-off Y20 billion yen (US$262 million) allocation — but the annual research budget will be cut 70%~80% from its previous Y10 billion.

Monju reached criticality in 1994 but was shut down the following year because of a fire triggered by a sodium coolant leak. It took the government over 14 years to demonstrate safety, overcome scandals related to tampered video images, and garner local support for restarting operations. But then, three months after it did so in May 2010, something happened that is still difficult to fathom. In August, 3.3-tonne device fell into the reactor’s inner vessel, cutting off access to the plutonium and uranium fuel rods. After a couple failed attempts, they finally dislodged the device in June 2011.

Monju was to be the cornerstone of Japan’s plans to use MOX (mixed oxide) fuel, but those plans seem to have disintegrated. Monju already faced fiery opposition.

One might start to wonder how much longer it can limp along.

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